Horned lizards aren’t known
for speed to avoid predators or
venom to bring down threats.
But these miniature dragons
have other tricks in their
arsenal for desert survival.

DAY 15. Ran out of water yesterday.
Haven’t had a decent meal in a week.
Nearly froze last night. Now I’m so hot
I’m hallucinating. No shade. No place
to hide. Don’t think I can last much
longer . . .”

You’ll never see this in a horned lizard’s
journal. These diminutive desert
dragons may not be as menacing as
man-eating crocodiles or venomous
vipers, but they are better equipped
than Navy SEALs to live life on the
edge. Their edge is the dry, forbidding
deserts of North and Central America.


Like all reptiles, horned lizards get
their body heat from the environment.
Either they soak in the sun’s
rays directly, or they soak in the heat
from the ground. This is a great advantage
in the desert where food may be
scarce—since they don’t have to produce
their own heat, they can survive
on fewer calories.

Night is a challenge. To avoid temperature
extremes (and nighttime predators),
horned lizards bury themselves
in the sandy soil. But cold desert nights
can still chill them to the bone. And a
cold lizard is a slow lizard. If they had
to haul themselves out of the sand each
morning and wait for the sun to warm
them, they’d be sitting ducks for any
carnivore looking for an easy breakfast.

So God gave horned lizards a little
trick to warm themselves quickly
before they leave the sand. They poke
only their heads out into the morning
sun. This heats up their brains and a
strategically placed blood sinus (cavity).
Once the sinus has warmed sufficiently,
the lizard dilates the blood
vessels leading to the rest of its cold,
buried body. In this way, it heats up
while still hidden under the cool sand.
Once it’s warm, the lizard can emerge,
alert and agile, ready to face the day.

Eating Dinner Without Becoming Dinner

Lizard in Sand

Photo by Danita Delimont

When horned lizards bury
themselves in the sand,
their spiky outline and
desert coloring make them
difficult to see while they
wait for a meal to walk by.

With predators prowling the wide-open
desert, horned lizards have a
problem. They are ant-eating specialists
(although they munch on other
insects, too). This means they must
park themselves next to a column of
foraging ants and snap them up one
by one with their sticky tongues. The
problem is, most ants are small and
contain a lot of indigestible bits, so
horned lizards must eat prodigious
quantities of them. While they sit
around eating ants, they are a tempting
target for predators.

To make matters worse, massive
meals require a massive stomach.
Horned lizards’ stomachs are about
twice the size of other lizard stomachs
in proportion to their body size. So,
compared to most lizards of the desert,
they’re slowpokes.

One defense, which they share
with many desert animals, is their
earth-tone camouflage. By lying still,
they vanish against the rocky, sandy
ground. Their thorny heads and spiny
scales break up their outline and
make them blend in better. One species,
Phrynosoma modestum, actually
matches the shape of the small rocks
in its habitat.

Reptilian Aqueducts

Water is the biggest challenge in
the desert. Standing water is hard to
find and short-lived. But these wonderful
little lizards never need to
lap up water from a pond or stream.
God equipped them with their own
water collection and transport system.
Rain or dew wicks down into
crevices between their scales. At the
bottom of these crevices is a maze of
interconnected “aqueducts.” Together
they transport collected water forward
to converge at both corners of
their mouths. As the lizards drink,
more water is pulled forward by capillary
action, like being sucked through
a straw. To help things along, the
horned lizard raises its hindquarters
into the air.

Design for the Fall

We don’t know what the original
horned lizards looked like or even
whether they were decked out for the
desert at the beginning. Certainly
they did not need to escape predators
in God’s original “very good” creation.
It’s possible some of their unique
features were concealed at first, and
then came into use after the Fall.
They may have also diversified and
adapted according to God’s design
while repopulating a very different
and dynamic earth after the Flood.

One thing we do know: every amazing
attribute, whether visible at creation
or programmed into their genes
for later use, was created by our Lord
Jesus Christ (John 1:3). He bestowed
upon the horned lizard all the tools it
needs to live out its rough-and-tumble
life in a way that glorifies the Creator
. . . even in a fallen world.

Did You Know?

One horned lizard was found
to have eaten 2,500 ants. With
a big stomach and appetite,
it’s no wonder their tank-like
bodies are slower than
their more streamlined
lizard cousins.

Lizard Eating

Illustration by Dave Mottram

Three species of horned lizards have a shocking defensive maneuver of last
resort. If camouflage fails, these species can suddenly increase the blood
pressure in their eye sinuses so the sinuses rupture. The pressurized blood
squirts out of tiny pores in their closed eyelids. They can fire several rounds
of this liquid up to 4 feet.

In its efforts to warm up, a horned lizard
can tilt its flat body toward the sun like
a solar panel to catch more rays.

Horned lizardsʼ spine-covered bodies
make them a dangerous meal.
Predators have been mortally
wounded after swallowing them.
They can also inflate
themselves, making
the idea of a lizard
lunch as appealing as swallowing a pinecone.

Lizard Inflating

Illustration by Dave Mottram

Dr. Gordon Wilson, Senior Fellow of Natural History at
New Saint Andrews College, earned his PhD from George
Mason University in environmental science and public
policy. He holds a master of science degree in entomology
from the University of Idaho.

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